Chapter 3D Section ii – New Opportunities (1982-1992)
My family and I found many challenges in the first decade of ownership of our Forwardstown farm: making certain the deed was free and clear of obligations, paying for the property, gaining access to suitable ground for building – which included constructing a solid cement bridge and long driveway – and all that goes with planning and erecting a suitable residence for a household of four. Five years after the abode went up, I changed jobs. This decision was perhaps the biggest self-imposed obstacle to overcome for me, personally and professionally, following through with the decision to leave my 10-year broadcasting career for something new. As the last installment was concluding, I believed it was time to take my small vested pension with WJAC, Inc. in 1981 and accept an offer across town and across the county line with Northern Propane, later the defunct Enron, in Windber, as a marketing person. For you Trivia buffs, “Windber” is the name of the coal company that founded the borough spelled backwards, “Berwind.” As I’ll explain in Chapter 4, that decision to change jobs was not the best, and within less than two years I returned to broadcasting in the county seat of Somerset. By the end of the 80s I would take my sales experience and truly take a chance by leaving some of the people and more secure situations I loved to work “straight commission,” selling life insurance and investments for one of the nation’s oldest and largest financial companies, New York Life. Now, in my retirement years, I’m still selling and servicing financial products to the local population, at least on a part-time basis and with a different brokerage. But, in the meantime, I literally stumbled upon a career that I have always considered “risk free and really rewarding.” A preview of finding and taking that opportunity with Mt. Aloysius College is how I’ll end this 10-year installment.
Before getting into the specifics of how we greatly improved our physical living arrangements, let me review the situations of this family of Forwardstown. Wife Susan successfully combined motherhood with private music teaching in her new basement studio. Many voice and piano students found their way to the house in all kinds of weather. Often the parents watched TV with me in the family room while the young ones learned technique and repertoire on the other side of the block and paneled wall. Many students went on to find success and satisfaction with high school, college, and community ensembles. Some returned over the years with young ones of their own for instruction.
Daughter Annie entered her second decade in the 80s with admittance to what were called “gifted classes” in North Star public schools. I’m sure that her week with “Miss Mary” on WJAC-TV’s Romper Room, pictured above, as a youngster helped with her intellectual confidence. Of course it didn’t take much convincing to have her study a variety of musical instruments in those ten years: piano, with three different teachers; cello with a member of the Johnstown Symphony; organ with Pittsburgh’s Preston Showman; and trombone, her high school band instrument, with Roger Johnston, now a fellow Presbyterian and member of several acclaimed ensembles. While her mother and I were certain she would be a music major and teacher like us, Annie decided instead to use her technical skills to become an engineer. She was admitted a year early after a summer internship at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1988. As we’ll learn, she earned her Masters and Doctorate in the decade to follow at Georgia Tech in Atlanta before accepting a teaching position at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Annie did become a teacher, just not in music. As you can surmise, most of her room, board, and tuition was paid for at those expensive institutions through part-time work and lots of scholarships and assistantships. Did I mention that when she was in high school she spent summers filling ice cream cones under the tutelage of her cousin Dave at nearby Krause’s Tasty Freeze in Jennerstown? Most of the money she earned there went towards buying an old Volkswagen to drive to Pittsburgh to meet her Pittsburgh obligations.
Son Matthew was not far behind his sister in anything. He was also in the gifted program. He was selected for Regional Chorus, played the trumpet in the high school band, and acted in North Star theater productions. Matt excelled on the football field as a quarterback. The only problem was that, in some hair-brained practice scheme by his junior high coach, he was severely injured in a tackle drill by a senior high player. After the promise of full recovery within several months, Matt realized that to continue in such a dangerous pursuit was just not worth it. He quit football and invested his time in computers and more academic interests. His early high school summers were spent working at his Uncle Paul’s sheep farm in Connecticut. During the school months he helped me deliver Sunday papers. I can still see him in the passenger side of the car with the window down as he reached out with his right hand to slide the fat Tribune-Democrat into the plastic tube, all the while with his hand warmer clutched in his left hand. The money her earned from these jobs and as a kitchen boy at the local Chinese restaurant, Hunam Inn, just down the road, went to fund his Junior Year Abroad program in Germany. He later spent time with Wayne State University’s college level Junior Year in Munich (JYM) program. Matt came away from the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania with a double major. He later earned his Masters degree from Penn State-___while working for Lockheed-Martin as a systems engineer. The irony in all of this is that his grandparents worked for a predecessor of this company during World War II, and his father, uncle, and great uncle have degrees from Penn State. Matthew now writes computer code for Allstate Insurance. We’ll hear about his times in those historic places in the next installment.
But let’s back up a bit. The early 80s saw both of our kids playing for the Jennerstown little league baseball team. Their coach was none other than their dad. My memories include trying to get practices in during the rainy month of April. The games were scheduled for May with a big picnic before school let out in June. I don’t know which I enjoyed more, seeing them play with their friends from school or traveling to far away places with unusual names in Somerset County, like Roytown, Bakersville, and Sipesville. Some of those young people have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, and professionals of every ilk, probably now with kids and grandkids of their own.
Both of our youngsters had suffered leg breaks in elementary school, before little league. Matthew was skiing and Annie had two incidents, one while sliding on ice and the other while tripping in briar bushes while hiking. Annie also got hit in the face with a ball thrown to home plate from first base. She was a catcher in the all-star game and just had her head turned the wrong way. The fast ball dislodged a front upper tooth, we thought, but an x-ray revealed that it had been driven out of sight up into the gum. With a great deal of patience, and a lot of pain I’m sure, Annie wished the tooth eventually down into its regular position, but it was crooked. Braces were able to straighten it out, but it had to be bleached to being back the natural color. As if these injuries aren’t enough to make you cringe, Annie also had to have her jaw broken, realigned, and wired nearly shut until it healed after a diagnosis of Temporomandibular Joint disorder (TMJ) in her early years of college. These were just some of the medical maladies our family, and most families, suffer, I guess.
On a more positive note, allow me to share the joy and appreciation that wildlife has brought our family and guests. Oh, I don’t mean THAT kind of wildlife but rather the kind God and nature has provided over the years. Have you read Susan’s and my “Meditations”? Whether they pass by while we relax on the back porch, or enjoy an open space to romp with their own kind as we peek out our various windows, or we catch them by surprise as we traipse over the property, the animals have come individually, in herds, in flocks, and even in schools. The State Fish Commission stocks the Ben’s Creek with trout along the north border of our land. In the weeks before spring fishing season, usually April, an enormous silver tanker truck parks across the road in the old Casa Nova lot, surrounded by a dozen or more enthusiastic sportsmen ready to help unload. With plastic five-gallon buckets in hand and wearing long rubber boots, they hold the containers underneath a spout at the rear of the vehicle as the driver turns the large spigot. Sometimes the young fingerlings are release through a long hose directly into the water or skimmed off the top of the truck. I never bought a fishing license, but I used to cast a hook and bobbin in friend Joe’s lake nearby. I’d rather try my luck at Walmart.
Next to seeing deer, which I’ll say more about in a minute, the most common, year-round animals are the wild turkeys. Sitting on the back porch, we’ll hear their clicking getting louder, coming our way from any direction and distance. They’re easiest to see when the leaves are off the trees and bushes. In the fall, they’ll scratch up the dead leaves. It’s quite a sight sometimes to see a big tom atop a barberry bush, holding down the thorny branches so the hens can savor the bright red berries. Sometimes, when the snow is deep in winter, they’ll come close to the house and madly paw the white stuff away so they can get down to any food that might be under it. When they’re done, they move away, back into the woods like a wave, at the same gentle speed with which they came.
Speaking of birds, I’ve counted over 20 species native to our property. Once I saw a giant eagle, no not the grocery store, atop a dead tree about a mile up the road in the early morning hours while I was delivering the Sunday newspapers. I was so thrilled then that now I don’t remember if it was golden or bald, but I’m certain it was an eagle and that it was probably on a migration route along the Laurel Mountains. More common birds of color include robins, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, orioles, canaries, and buntings, to name a few. We have both regular and giant pileated woodpeckers that make a racket in their quest for bugs.
Several years ago the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) invested in several mine drainage ponds just across the Ben’s Creek to the north of our property to settle and remove the acid coming out of an old mine operation along the mountain. Deadly natural chemicals like Sulfar and iron were getting into the creek and the waters of the Ferndale Sportsmen’s Club lake up the valley. Somehow, Canadian geese have established a home in the lower lake. We have learned to live with the loud honking over there, but we’re always delighted to see the magnificent flying “Vs” taking off from and landing on the water. We hold our breaths in the spring and summer when the feathered parents take their babies on a stroll from the ponds to the yards across the busy Somerset Pike for greener salads. Some of the neighbors are not as concerned as they hate the piles of poop they leave. I say that it’s a small price to pay for such a sight.
We used to feed the birds in various feeders, but that came to an end when we kept finding the feeders mysteriously dragged to the ground and emptied. We were assured by the next door neighbor that there were hungry bears on the prowl. They were witness to the same problem. The only time Susan and I have ever seen such a black beast was just after her family reunion on the back porch and all but her cousins Linda and Jerry had left. We were sitting with our backs to the garden, when all of a sudden the cousins’ eyes got big and their jaws dropped. We turned to see what looked like an enormous black bear strolling around the corner of the house, from the driveway to the woods line. Imagine four grown adults about to fit through the kitchen door off the porch. Well, the big guy saw us and was, I’m sure, equally afraid. He took off up into the woods and all returned to normal, except for the wonderful story we’ve retold many times. I must say that there was a problem with a particular bear getting into the dumpster of the Casa Nova across the road, and the game commission brought a large, live trap baited with old donuts. I don’t think they ever caught any bears, but I tease Susan about checking the trap if I ever came up missing. I love donuts!
Let me return to our deer population for a minute. I’ve always kept the front pasture mowed and trimmed to keep the weeds and white thorn bushes from taking over, but I’ve learned to wait until after the Fourth of July, though. By then the babies have been born. Before I bought my ATV and field mower, I would pay a neighbor to cut the acreage. I wondered why he often stood up behind the steering wheel. After I began mowing the plot myself, I understood why. Mother deer apparently found my ground a safe place to “drop” their fawns. I could be riding along and get within inches of the little ones, and they would instantly jump up and take-off, scaring the b-geebies out of me. More importantly, they could be mowed over, seriously injured, or killed unless I hit the brakes. Fortunately, I’ve never had such an incident occur yet, but I owe that to extreme caution or just plain luck.
We have always had a mineral block above the house on the woods line, mostly for the deer, although the squirrels and chipmunks, and probably other animals, seem to enjoy it. I’ve never used it to “bait” deer years ago when I was a hunter. I pretty much gave up the sport after son Matthew quit. He just couldn’t understand why anyone would get up before dawn and sit silently in the freezing cold just to “maybe” get a shot off at such an innocent creature. I’ve never been that hungry for venison or premeditated murder, so I too hung up my rifle. My first “kill” was not really one at all. When I was a hunter, I was walking back to the truck after being in the woods all morning, and I figuratively stumbled over a warm deer carcass. Apparently, someone had shot the poor animal and failed to find it, perhaps in a hurry to also get back to the truck for lunch. After sometime pondering what to do, I “cleaned” the animal, dragged it to the truck, and took it to the butcher shop for processing. The next year, just across the road from where I had found that deer, I was able to take down a small buck with one shot. After waiting for it to fall, as I was taught, I located it a short distance away and followed the same procedure. Both animals were what we call “4 points.” I’m not against hunting, and believe there is good in safely and cleanly keep certain wildlife populations in check. The experience of harvesting one’s own food is a priceless experience, also.
I’ll share more about our experiences with domestic livestock and pets in the next installment along with other avocations, professional situations, and what I call ministries and missions. But, as I promised upfront of this part, perhaps the most rewarding time I’ve spent in “the professions” was my 21-year service as an adjunct professor at Mt. Aloysius College in adjacent Cambria County, the borough of Cresson to be exact. I taught a variety of courses, which I’ll cover in Chapter 4, but the most amazing thing is that I got started there really by accident. Let me just say that, on a day trip over the mountain to the railroad city of Altoona, I pulled off Rt. 422 to tour the historic campus. I was greeted in the main office by the secretary of continuing education who asked how she could help me. Just as in a department store, I replied, “Just looking.” As we talked more, I briefly outlined my recent business and educational background, to which she exclaimed, “You have a Masters in Communication”? I quickly learned that they were looking for someone to teach Public Speaking classes, and after a further interview and background check, I passed the inspection and got the job. Imagine me, a college professor! This era truly was a time of new opportunities. More later. Please read on.
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Last revised 4/17/22